Ian Hultquist graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston in 2008. He majored in film scoring and never really foresaw Passion Pit – the über popular elctro-pop for 20-somethings band with whom he plays guitar and keys for – taking off like it did.
“Passion Pit kind of took off the second I graduated,” he says when we sit down in Austin, Texas after the premiere of the film he composed that’s in competition at South by Southwest Film Festival. “It was a distraction from film scoring in a way, but a good distraction. While we were touring though, I was trying to get back into it. I would find [small] projects I could work on and now it’s slowly kind of built up to the point where I’m able to do full-length sound, which is really exciting.”
Animals, a story about a middle class white couple-turned junkies living out of their car in the streets of Chicago, is Hultquist’s second feature-length film he’s composed. He previously scored a Sundance documentary about higher education in the United States called Ivory Tower.
“I’ve been working in film scoring for a few years,” he says, “but I’ve only done short films and commercials. Animals is my first narrative feature, so in a way it feels like my first ‘movie-movie.’”
The music in Animals is fairly subtle, often opting for silence instead of even any ambient sounds or songs. Hultquist gave the film over 30 minutes of original score, keeping away from anything Passion Pit-y.
“Me as a composer is very different from me in the band,” explains Hultquist. “I’m not the songwriter of Passion Pit at all, so obviously the sound that comes out of that band is always very different from each one of us individually. When we go and play the shows live, that’s where we [come together]. With scoring, I feel like I’ve always kind of leaned towards a darker sound. It depends on the story, of course, but with [Animals] in particular, it’s darker.
Hultquist became friends with actor David Dastmalchian – Animals writer and co-star and former heroin addict – on the set Constant Conversations, Passion Pit music video. Dastmalchian had had a small role in The Dark Knight, and Hultquist is a self-confessed Batman nerd, so they connected immediately.
“That script was such a beautiful and sad story, yet with so much strength. I’ve only read a few scripts in my time, but when I do, it’s not that often that I feel something from it. This one I really felt something. Even to the very end, that last page is just so perfectly sweet and ties everything together. I was so eager to score it. Also, I grew up in Chicago as well so the story taking place and filming there was another big draw.
Hultquist felt scoring this movie was actually fairly tricky for him, as he wanted to work with acoustic guitar, his main instrument, but also wanted to experiment more with sound-manipulation and processing and “weird sampling things.” He reached out to and collaborated with a friend and another Chicagoan musician, Jon Natchez.
“I sent him a list of phrases, sounds and notes to record on his various collection of woodwind instrument,” says Hultquist. “The list consisted of things like ‘growl through your tenor saxophone’ or ‘breathe slowly through your bass clarinet.’”
Hultquist took those audio samples and started processing them through effects, pitching up and down, reversing them. “I kinda went nuts until I landed on sounds that I thought could work within the score. But it was hard, because it was such a realistic film and you’re always right in the world with the characters. It’s difficult to find something that won’t distract from that. It’s a fun job though, as a composer, to tell yourself not to do something.”
The band is on break right now after just finishing their “Gossamer” tour last year, and they’re prepping a third record. Being at SXSW without being at SXSW Music is OK for Hultquist though. “I’ve always been the one out of the guys that can really go incognito. I could literally walk out of one of our shows and no one would have even known I was playing. But I take pride in that. I’m happy I can just kind of blend into the background and disappear.”